Serbia and the Serious World We Live In Today

August 26th, 2016

Warning: Not your normal light, entertaining post.

I felt the heaviness in the air immediately. The mood of the country seemed dark, just like the rain-filled clouds that greeted me when I arrived to Serbia. Spring had definitely not sprung and the weather in Belgrade was unseasonably cold and wet.

Driving from the airport to my friend Renee’s childhood home, we skirted the city and headed into the suburbs, passing blocks of multi-storied, concrete buildings—the architectural symbol of the communist-era. Oh yes, I thought, I remember this. From Russia to (East) Germany to Prague to Mongolia, this fabled simple box architecture symbolizes another time and place. It possesses no beauty, but does remind locals of a happier era—when Belgrade was at the top of its game. When it was the capitol of Yugoslavia, and the center of its political and cultural life.


Downtown Belgrade

Downtown Belgrade


“Amerikanka” –that’s what I was called in Serbia. The first time I heard it, I laughed, but quickly grew fond of the word. Walking the crowded downtown streets, Renee suggested we speak softly (in English). I was surprised by her comment, but she said many people hadn’t forgiven America for bombing their city. That yes, it was technically a NATO bombing, but everyone thinks NATO is America. Renee added that people were crushed because America was always a land they admired and loved, and now they felt deceived, betrayed. “But what about the genocide, the ethnic cleaning, that Serbia inflicted?” I said.

This is where I would normally recap history and give a brief explanation of events that led to such a vicious war, but it’s complicated and revolves around ethnic hatred that dates back to the encroaching Ottoman Empire. This concept of ethnicity, and the centuries-old harboring of injustices that comes along with it, is hard for the average American to grasp. We live in the only true melting pot in the world. The majority of our forefathers came here to forget the past and all its grievances–not simmer in a stew of hatred. (As a cook, I love that sentence. As an observer of recent American culture, I see the tides turning.)


Turkish Fort

Turkish Fort


In the six republics of the former Yugoslavia, people strongly identified with their clans: Croats and Serbs, Slovenes and Bosnians, Montenegrins and Macedonians. They never melted; they never blended. They kept their languages and religions, which was not always an easy task in an atheist country. Due to these large differences and the insurgence of Serbian nationalism, most of the republics wanted out and lobbied for a federation of states instead. Serbia didn’t agree and wouldn’t negotiate. When Slovenia succeeded, followed by Croatia, Serbia declared it would support its own people, who lived throughout the land. That was their mandate to enter the former republics by force and duly, civil war broke out. (For an incredibly detailed timeline, read;


The Cryllic alphabet is alive and well.

The Cryllic alphabet is alive and well.


By the time I landed in Serbia, the war had been over for 15 years; however a bombed out building near the train station, the Ministry of Defense, was deliberately left in ruin as a reminder of the injustice done to the people of Serbia. I stood in front of the ruble as men and machinery came in for the very first time to begin the cleanup. Belgrade and its leaders had been simmering the stew.

Another ingredient in the recipe — 30,000 Syrian refugees descended upon Belgrade last year. Some joked that the country wasn’t worried, though. They knew that the refugees would move on—Serbia offered no opportunity, no hope. The masses did depart for the north, but the memory of their arrival lingers.


Orthodox Easter Eggs--we arrived just in time.

Orthodox Easter Eggs–We arrived just in time.


During my stay, I wanted to discover the country, not as a tourist, but as an avid historian who observes and contemplates people and their varying cultures. So, I walked the old town with its mix of Austria-Hungarian opulence and drab communism. I strolled through the nearby park and climbed the steps of a long-abandoned Turkish fortress to see where the Saba River flows into the Danube, eventually emptying into the Black Sea. Instead of focusing on this strategic spot that led to the founding of the city, I was fixated on the nearby vendors hawking t-shirts of Putin and war memorabilia. “Kosovo is Ours!” was emblazed on banners and shirts, sold next to Serbian flags, large and small. (Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.)


Where the Saba meets the Danube.

Where the Saba meets the Danube.


Downtown Belgrade is full of sidewalk cafés. It’s where people spend their evenings, discussing politics and life. It’s where I discovered their hardships–how the economy is stagnate, that work is hard to come by and the pay dismal. (Unemployment is now at 18%, down from a recent high of 25%.) Many complained about not having extra money, sometimes not even for a tank of gas…and this was the “white collar” crowd–the same people who protested in the streets when the current president, Tomislav Nikolic, came to power. Nikolic, a nationalist and outspoken admirer of Russia, had struck a chord with the growing underclass and disillusioned voters hit by hard times. Once a close ally of the former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the last president of Yugoslavia and the man charged with crimes against humanity in the Balkan War, Nikolic campaign slogan was reminiscent of —“Make Serbia Great Again!”

Now, do you see where I’m going with this?

Please forgive the digression and be patient.


A pedestrian street with outdoor cafes.

A pedestrian street with outdoor cafes.


Travel teaches us so much. Observing other people’s mistakes should also teach us; but it rarely does. Normally, I would write about the entertaining facts of travel and the wonderful food I discover along the way. In Serbia, it was burek–phyllo dough stuffed with fresh cheese and sometimes vegetables or spiced ground beef. I would also tell you how the smell of tobacco was overpowering in all the restaurants and that, until then, I had (thankfully) forgotten what it was like to have a meal in a cloud of smoke, but what I saw and felt on this particular trip was so much bigger and more important than all of this.


A selection of burek.

A selection of burek.


Nationalism is roaring its evil head again in Serbia. People are angry, just like in much of Europe and even here at home. History teaches us, though, that nothing good ever comes of nationalism.

I’ve been on a quest my entire life, not one of cooking or travel or self-discovering, but one that started with a simple question at the age of eight—Why does Grandma Kramer have a blue tattoo on her wrist? Grandma Kramer was my best friend’s grandmother. She didn’t speak much English, only Polish, and she baked and cooked and watched us sometimes after school. I was fixated on her tattoo. When I asked about it, my friend said she was in the Holocaust, but I didn’t understand what that meant. This is where my journey began though, my academic life without really being in academia. (Truth be told, I was too intimidated, and maybe a little lazy, to go for the Doctorate.)

By the time I was 10, I had read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” By the age of 12, I was studying German. In college, I studied WWII history, continuing my education in Germany. I took classes with former Nazi officers and Hitler Youth, because I wanted them to tell me—Why does Grandma Kramer have a tattoo? And even though I read all the books and knew the timeline of events, as well as spent a few holiday weekends visiting concentration camps instead of having fun with friends, I still didn’t understand how humanity could allow something like that to happen. I wanted answers—answers from the people who had lived it, the ones who had stood in agreement, as well as silence.

Does silence mean agreement? Where is the line? And does that line change when the stakes are higher? When your country is on a very dangerous path? Of course it does.

I didn’t think I’d see this dynamic in my lifetime, but I guess I give humanity too much credit. We’re not the brightest of creatures. We don’t learn from history, or the mistakes of others. The tide is turning in Serbia. I saw and listened to frightening stories in Hungary and Austria, recently, as well. And then I came home and saw it happening in America. What I had read in all those books, is now unfolding before my very eyes and instead of a sea of indignation, I see support and way too much silence.

I sit in dismay watching a completely unqualified man convince people that he’s a leader. I see how he takes people’s frustrations and despair and puts them into his large cauldron. He then stirs in the other essential ingredients: fear mongering, hatred, nationalism, scapegoating, ego, and misinformation spouted with extreme conviction. He preys on ignorance and the uneducated. If someone disagrees with his views, he stops everything to say, “Get him out of here!” —a textbook tactic of authoritarian leadership. Some people cheer his action, others laugh at it. But what I want to know is, where’s the outrage?

I see top politicians backing madness, some claiming that they can control the man. Their ignorance is shocking and it shows that they are as unqualified as he is. I don’t believe this man will become President. He’ll probably walk away in order to keep his inflated ego intact and his tax returns a secret.

My story, and this recipe for disaster, has nothing to do with Democrat versus Republican, right versus left. I take no stance here. My story is about recognizing the signs of danger before it’s too late and doing something about it, as in choosing a new party candidate. The time for laughing it off, as they laughed off Hilter in the 1920’s, is long over. He started as a joke, you know. A common bully stirring a pot of hatred, using the above recipe and insisting only he had the solution to the country’s discontent. This message would later be tailored and called The Final Solution. (If you don’t know what this is, please look it up.)

Supposedly, 40% of Americans stand behind this man and that’s what we, as a country, need to fear. We should fear ignorance and hatred. We should fear voters who are willing to throw their country and its people under the bus in order to amass huge personal wealth. The irony of this election is that the working class, via their segment of voters, is the strongest supporter of our 1%, and they don’t even realize it.

My story is about not being silent.

My story is about truly understanding why Grandma Kramer had a blue tattoo.


Trams in front of the Belgrade train station. This is where they Syrian refugees camped out last summer.

Trams in front of the Belgrade train station. Last summer, a sea of Syrian refugees camped out here.

Barriers & Boys

July 31st, 2016

Recently, I received a request to partake in an interview about women chefs in San Miguel. I wasn’t going to be included in the hot chef list—that seemed to be reserved for women under 40. Instead, I was going to be featured as a maestra–a teacher, a role model, a woman who opened the doors for the next generation.

My first reaction was, “Geez, how old do you think I am?” In my mind, the doors had already been flung open. I was the fortunate one that grew up in a world where I honestly believed I could do anything. I admired and appreciated the struggle of the many women before me, some even before my mother and grandmother. Their actions and sacrifices gave me my absolute freedom.

But that’s America, at least my experience in America. This is Mexico.


Jesus Street

Jesus Street


My second reaction to the interview request—“Really? Foraging a path for women? Me?” I sat back and reflected on the early days and soon felt the weight of how hard it had been. That moment was the first time I realized that I had indeed fought the fight. And then, I started to cry, amazed that someone had noticed my struggle and was curious about it.

When I opened my café in 1991, San Miguel was a quiet, conservative and extremely traditional town. I, unbeknownst to myself at the time, had chosen to infiltrate the provincial Latino world of Ozzie and Harriet, thinking that the fringe of expat hippies would soften the blow—it didn’t.

Since gender had never been an issue nor a hindrance in my life, it didn’t occur to me that it could become one. Well, at least not until the coffee vendor arrived.

I had just opened my café and marveled when a man bearing coffee beans and a price list showed up on my doorstep. He said hello and asked to speak with my husband. I replied that I didn’t have one. He then asked to speak with my father. “He lives in Texas,” I answered, somewhat confused.

“Well, who am I suppose to talk to?” he questioned, anxiously.

When I told him that I was the owner, he grabbed his samples and stomped out exclaiming, “I’m not going to discuss business with a woman!”

I don’t remember being angry. Well, maybe a little, but it was more my style to laugh and think, what an idiot. Someone else would gladly accept my tainted girl money.

Then there was the waiter I told to do something on his second or third day of work. He replied, “I don’t take orders from women.” Needless to say, that was his last day of working for a mere female.

For years after that, I mostly hired single mothers, more intelligent beings whose top priority wasn’t ego, but feeding and educating their children. They were more than happy to take orders from me —they had had enough of men telling them what to do.

Truth be told, my introduction to this new world of injustice and inequality actually came at the very beginning, when I first applied for a Mexican work permit. At the time, the head of immigration interviewed me, took my filled-out forms and passport, and put them in his top desk drawer.

I was told to check back the following week. When I did, I was escorted to the Jefe’s office where he closed the door and pulled out my passport. Leafing through the pages, he said, “Meet me tonight.” I said I couldn’t. “Then come back next week. I can’t help you now.”

This routine went on for 6 months. As I watched other foreigners collect their FM3s, I was always asked to wait–the Jefe wanted to see me. Because of my limited life experience at the age of 25,  I actually believed that one day he’d give up and my new, shiny immigration booklet would be waiting for me. What were my options anyway? I didn’t have money for a lawyer, nor a family in Mexico to support my cause. Local government officials? I knew not to waste my time.

I rented a space on Jesús and was making plans to finally open my café, painting the walls and pricing furniture, when I started to panic– optimism and patience were getting me nowhere. I needed help, so I found a lawyer who would intervene. He went to Mexico City and over the head of our local immigration office. He got my work permit as well as my passport back, but it took every cent I had to pay for it—all the money I had saved to open my café was gone. I had to take out (another) loan in order to continue with my dream as well as look for a paying job, in addition to working full time at the café.

Knowing of my predicament and wanting to help, a respected middle-aged businessman asked me to tutor his 12-year old son in English. He praised my intelligence and hard work and told me to come to his office—not their home—for the first lesson. I was grateful for the extra money and agreed. When I showed up, the child was nowhere in sight, only the father, who proposed yet another job, one that would make me even more money—if I would put on the lingerie he had spread across his desk and allow him to take pictures.

“Just for me,” he said, “No one else has to know.”

Seriously? SERIOUSLY!!

How many women before me had to suffer through a similar scenario in order to make my life, at least until then, void of this ridiculousness?




There was also another issue at hand, one that caught me somewhat by surprise—class discrimination. In the Mexico I arrived to, women of a certain class didn’t work, and especially not in a kitchen—that was the realm of servants. Due to my skin color and education I was of that class, even though culturally I was far removed. Early on, I learned that not many of my male peers respected my work or my effort. They thought I was playing a game until I could find a husband.

A “high-bred” Mexico City man, a potential suitor, who I knew socially, stopped by the café one day. When I appeared, my apron smeared with flour and chocolate, he exclaimed with disgust, “You cook?” He never really spoke to me again.

A few others made it clear that if our relationship were to go any further that I would have to renounce my embarrassing, unladylike habit of working in a kitchen. I would be allowed to own the café, and even supervise its day-to-day business, however it would be unacceptable to do actual labor. I would not be allowed to cook…or sweat. (I swear, one of them actually said sweat, and then had a ceiling fan installed in my kitchen, so he would never find me with a wet brow.)

The men came and went, but my café, my work in the kitchen remained. I got my hands dirty and even, god forbid, washed a few dishes. Did I set an example to young Mexican women from “good families” that it was ok to work in a kitchen? That it was ok to do what you wanted, not what your husband or family expected you to do? Honestly, I think what changed the game was the new era of the celebrity chef and the popularity of the cooking channel.

Luckily, things did get easier with time—I also got older and wiser and tougher. And even though I still suffered years of not being taken seriously and was talked down to by men, much less educated than myself, I persevered. Gaining respect in the community took time, but it happened, or at least I think it did. I had to fight for that respect, though, the same respect that would have been handed to a man, no questions asked.

I’ve been at the helm of my business as a sole female proprietor for 25 years. Until very recently, there were only a few of us female chefs and restaurateurs in town, but this is changing, and changing fast.

If you consider my story of struggle opening doors for the next generation of women, then please, save me a seat at the table with the other maestras.


**So, you’re wondering what happened to the Jefe, huh?? Well, the next time he played his game with another young American woman, he forgot to thoroughly read her papers. If he had, he would have noted that she had just married into a prominent local family. This family took him down. They did the job that I couldn’t…but maybe, just maybe, my original complaint made firing him an open and shut case.

Ode to Yugoslavia

June 22nd, 2016

Confession: I’m a geography snob…and, of course, somewhat of a food snob. But when it comes to clothes, jewelry, decor, I don’t even have an opinion. Cars? I bought my last one at a fire sale–literally. It had caught on fire, but just the back end. The engine and dashboard were fine; the seats a little crispy. But I’ m digressing. Let’s get back to geography, specifically world geography, or the lack there of in America.


A View from the Island of Krk in Croatia.

A View from the Island of Krk in Croatia.


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Tis the Season

December 16th, 2015

 The San Miguel Guadalupe Christmas Experience: A True Story

***To get the most out of the San Miguel Guadalupe Christmas Experience, go to Youtube and play “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart at a ridiculously loud volume. ( Then continue reading.

Twas two weeks before Christmas, when all thro’ the town,

not a person was sleeping, not even the dogs in the pound.

Large speakers were placed by my house with care,

in hopes that the Holy Mother Guadalupe would soon be there.

On the street, people were nestled all snug in their coats,

while visions of another Corona danc’d in their throats.

With my cat in his basket, and I in my bed,

we had just settled in after I book I just read.

When out on the street there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.


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A Symphony of Life

October 8th, 2015

I had heard of Il Gatto Nero on the island of Burano, in Venice’s north lagoon, long before I went there. I knew Jaime Oliver was a fan, but more importantly, Venetians who respected their culture and cuisine, had told me it was one of the area’s best restaurants.

Hearsay wasn’t enough though. I needed to experience it for myself. So, three years ago, on a cool, cloudy day, while auditioning Venice, I hopped a vaporetto with a friend and we made the 50-minute journey to Burano. (What’s she talkin’ about, the audition?:


The colorful houses of Burano.

The colorful houses of Burano


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Comfort Me with Apples

September 22nd, 2015

(Titled lifted from Ruth Reichl’s book of the same name.)

The moment the man said, “In Normandy, we butter our bread before slathering on the cheese,” I knew I was in the right place. The heavy cream and Calvados-laden dishes only confirmed it. But even though I love butter and can eat my share of Camembert, I was actually in Normandy for another reason—to experience D-Day exactly where it happened.

As a World War II history buff, who spent a university year studying the subject in Germany—on the ground, in the camps, and with the people who lived it from the other side, I had already covered a lot of central Europe. However, still missing from my education were the beaches where on June 6, 1944 Allied troops landed and changed the fate of the world.


French cheese plate

French Cheese Plate


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Cancelled Reservations

September 8th, 2015

It started at an early age—my fascination with the ins and outs of the good life. It wasn’t my upbringing per se. I’m the product of middle class Texas, however in-between visits to BBQ joints and pulling up to the Jack in the Box drive-thru, I did cross a few imposing thresholds…and I paid attention. Wandering the hallways of the Plaza, while my parents had a drink in the bar, I studied discarded room service trays and unattended maid’s carts. If this predilection came from a past life it wasn’t one of luxury, rather service—I was Carson, managing the intimate details of Downton Abbey. There could be no other explanation.


Sacre Coeur in Paris

Sacre Coeur in Paris


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Olive Oil and Disco Dancing

July 22nd, 2015

Yes, olive oil and disco dancing. What could possibly be the connection? Well, let me tell you.

It’s a sunny yet cool day in Italy’s Upper Tiber Valley, in Tuscany, ten minutes from the Umbrian border. I’m with my culinary tour group, visiting an olive oil mill, which has been operating in the same family since 1421. For those who are challenged with historical dates, that’s before Columbus sailed the ocean blue…71 years before the discovery of the New World. I’m talkin’ the Americas here: North, Central and South.


Ravagni Olive Oil Store

Next to  the Ravagni’s home is a small store selling their products.


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Oprah, the truffle, and mere mortal me

June 11th, 2015

As a fan of Oprah Winfrey, I’ve followed her ascent to stardom (idoldom actually), as well as her amassing, and then trying to give away one of America’s greatest fortunes. What can I say—I like Oprah and I’m glad she’s done well. However, since she lives such an amazing life, I was a little surprised when I read that the only thing left on her bucket list was a truffle hunt.

Wait, a truffle hunt? Something, via my culinary tours, I know well and have the good fortune to partake in once or twice a year. Could it be that Oprah, the Queen, could be envious of mere mortal me? Or is she handing me a marketing tool on a silver platter? Maybe both. See, I knew we had a special connection.



Truffles just pulled from the ground.


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Ode to the “Beautiful” People

May 21st, 2015

Oh, the “beautiful” people! They really do exist, and not just in People magazine.

Arriving to Venice for a 2-week home exchange, I unknowingly stumbled onto the opening of the Biennale—Venice’s famed contemporary art festival, considered one of the most important in the world. However, this story isn’t about the festival, because then it would be about commoners, like myself. Instead, I prefer to delve into the lives of the lovely, the privileged.


Art Delivery

Biennale Art Delivery


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